Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Scotch Whisky Review: McClelland's Single Malt Islay


Tonight's dram is another of the McClelland's lineup of budget-priced malts -- this time, the Islay version. This leaves only the Lowland version to taste.

In the glass, this is a dark orange-gold, and clearly young -- the legs are short and brisk, but it lacks that oily, waxy texture.

On the nose, there is a goodly blast of peat smoke -- very medicinal, like Listerine, and just a little bit of sweet vanilla and malt, with a little iodine and salt -- it is hard to detect much else. The McClelland's site says "citrus," and I guess I can conjure a little orange peel.

In the mouth it is more promising. There's an initial caramel, maple (that is, Sherry-like) sweetness, with a little vanilla and honey. It's drying, but not exceedingly hot, with a lingering phenolic finish. The finish doesn't have the complexity and the "waves" of sweetness and peat that Laphroaig or Lagavulin has. It is pleasant, but doesn't really tantalize the tongue. It makes me crave a Caol Ila 12. There is something just slightly off-putting in the finish -- an undertone of bitterness, maybe, like a 90% dark chocolate -- that does not harmonize, and is not enjoyable. A reviewer I found called it "astringent," "green," and "raw." Another called it "grappa," and although I like grappa, a scotch whisky should not be reminiscent of a pungent liquor made of grape skins. My wife made similar comments -- that it tastes too much like moonshine.

With a little water, it sweetens slightly -- the smoke flavors become a little bit more subtle, and the vanilla (from oak aging) becomes more predominant. I'd say it is a little better wet, although not dramatically so.

It appears I may have mistakenly thought that the McClelland's Speyside was a 5-year old Bowmore. It seems that this one may be the Bowmore. The word is that the 8-year-old Bowmore "Legend" is better. Maybe I'll get the chance to compare them at some point.

Overall, where the Speyside was intriguing and complex, this one is too basic to really qualify as excellent. A few more years in the cask would probably make a world of difference. I rate this one only a 6, which is the lowest rating I've given out so far. As my wife says "there are things I like about it, but the things I like the most about scotch whisky aren't in it."

We're both unenthusiastic about finishing our glasses. This is the first whisky where I've actually poured the last of my glass into the sink, and so I can't really recommend it, even at the budget price point. Grace is going to try to figure out if it will work to soak some kind of cake. It's also the first single malt scotch I'd be willing to mix into a cocktail (McClelland's provides a recipe for a drink they call an Islay Smokestack that sounds tasty). I'd review that but we are missing some of the ingredients. Perhaps another time!

UPDATE: having tasted this a couple more times, I'm removing my rating altogether and just putting it in the category of "Avoid." Although the initial nose and flavor is still pleasant, that bitter, metallic after-taste follows you around, like chewing on foil, and it actually upsets my stomach. It almost seems similar to Pine Mouth. I'd almost believe that this was contaminated with something, but a more likely explanation is just that too much of the "tail" from the still was used and it contains some of the nasty compounds known as Fusel Alcohols.

17 comments:

Jason Debly said...

Great review! McClellands is so cheap compare to other single malts because they are not actually a distiller. Instead, what they do is buy up single malts that other distillers have excess of or chose not to bottle. Hence, the quality is never great, and at best adequate. So, one year the McClellands Islay will be Bowmore, while other years it might be Lagavulin.

In my opinion, McClelland's is clear proof you get what you pay for.

Paul R. Potts said...

Jason, thanks for your comments. I generally agree, however last night I again tasted my bottle of the Speyside version and it is quite decent whisky, although I have not figured out just where it came from.

The Highland was also pretty decent, although a little odd. It was only the Islay version that I thought really wasn't worth even the low price.

Mike Fetherston said...

I was wondering if you were going to try this after reading your previous McLelland's review. I kind of wanted to warn you, but wanted to see if you'd go for it. I'll agree with you that this is the nastiest whisky I've ever had. You said 90% chocolate on the finish, I'd go with road tar.

Paul R. Potts said...

So what does one do with whisky that just isn't worth drinking? If this were an action movie, I'd use it to disinfect a bullet wound or something, but real life is not usually that dramatic!

Jason Debly said...

What I do with whisky/scotch I can't stand to drink is to use it for mixed drinks (rusty nail, Rob Roy, etc.) or simply give it away to someone who likes it.

Trouble is, most of my friends are beer fiends.

Mike Fetherston said...

What I did with this particular whisky was promise myself that I would not drink anything else in my cabinet until the McLelland's was gone. Gotta say, it was gone fairly quickly!

Paul R. Potts said...

I had this one again tonight (since we're moving soon, I put most of my whisky in storage). That bitter after-taste is definitely still there. It almost reminds me of metal, like chewing on foil. I think this one actually upsets my stomach as well -- it can't be a coincidence after the third time. No other whisky has done that. Could that be a problem with using too much of the "tail" from the still? I came across this on Wikipedia and it looked like it might be relevant:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fusel_alcohol

Jason Debly said...

Paul, I don't know anybody who likes this stuff. I think your assessment is bang-on.

Jank said...

I'm actually a fan of the Islay McClelland's, but tried it first in 2011. Smoky, coffee, little bit of pine. Toughy whisky.

IMO, the Highland's usually too sweet, the Lowland's usually a safe choice, and they Islay is complex. Haven't found the Speyside or the 12YO; so can't compare. But, for a daily drinker, can't beat $20/bottle.

Shelly Balas said...

You are WRONG!!! For any fifth under 50 dollars this is the most unique and GOOD. What an interesting taste!!! I eat organic and holistic diet, i tasted NO ban, contaminant. YUM, Good, Buy some more!!!

Blaze Rose said...

I made a huge mistake buying a 1.75 LTR of this. The after taste is horrible. After taking a sip,if you breath out through your nose, it has very smoky flavor, which is repulsive. Honestly, this is the worst scotch I've ever had in my life. Will try hard to finish of the rest and say goodbye to this brand forever.

Paul Potts said...

Well, this is obviously subjective, and I think there is also potentially a lot of variation between different bottlings in these lower-end whiskies, but I will just say this: Shelly, maybe I had a bad batch and you had a better batch -- that's fine, but if so I want to warn people that they may have uneven quality control. Blaze, it isn't the smokiness that bothered me -- I really like some very peaty whiskies like Ardbeg's lineup, but this tasted like it contained some of the nastier, soapier products of distillation that happen when they leave in too much of the stuff from the "top" or the "bottom" of the bottling. But as ever, your mileage may vary and everyone's tastes are different.

Paul Potts said...

Also, note that I bought this bottling several years ago, and if there's one thing I've noticed about scotch it is that brands change over time.

Realgreatguy said...

I agree on this bottling issue. I had some good and bad with the Islay and Spreyside so I suspect different distillers. I find it worth the risk for a daily scotch and better than most blends.

Andrew Finkenbinder said...

The peat hit my nose like a hammer, it was pleasant on the tongue, and a sip after a few swishes and breaths revealed it to be exceedingly simple. I agree about the phenolic finish, but I had none of the tin-foil-chewing linger.

Definitely worthy for mixing, since the peatiness is much what you would want anyway. I would also give it to a visitor who pretends to like Scotch but I know they don't really.

setalip68 said...

Is it at all possible that all of you are terribly prejudiced by the price point, and thus inclined to find flaw with a very good and very reliable is lslay scotch? I'm just asking is it possible? Any Penn & Teller fans out there? I think it's a good representative of islay smokiness and a good representative of scotches defining most characteristic. Does it's price make it a utility scotch? Sure, for every day drinking (both love and hate admitting that). Enough already with the hints of this, and notes of that. When you drink MCclellands Islay you are tasting scotch. Even the most expensive bottles will always be better on the margins, but only on the margins. Getting tipsy is your goal!!! Always has been. Enjoy MCclellands Islay and the few extra bucks in your wallet. As if you've never eaten a big Mac and thought, yum!!! Please!!!

Paul Potts said...

setalip68, I agree that there is most likely a "halo" effect on expensive bottles, where if you spent a lot you might tend to rank a bottle higher. But I have had some $120+ bottles that I found quite disappointing. It's also true that I don't ask for a lot from a cheap whisky. But let's not pretend it is great. If they could sell this whisky for more, they would. Oh, sure, sometimes you can find something that is a great bargain, better than you'd expect for the price, but I don't think this is it. I don't drink whisky daily, and I would rather go hungry than eat a Big Mac. I haven't set foot in a McDonald's in 20 years. But I eat a lot of very inexpensive homemade food, make a mean chili out of ground bison and pinto beans from a 50-pound bag, and my regular glass of red wine to go with it comes out of a box. So make of that whatever you choose and thanks for your comment!